The 1993 European Grand Prix – the one and only time a world championship Formula 1 race was held at Donington Park – is regarded as one of the greatest races of Ayrton Senna’s career. More than 25 years later, his first-lap charge into the lead has gone down as the stuff of legend. After five extraordinary years with McLaren, in September 1992 Honda announced that it was quitting Formula 1, leaving the team in something of a fix to find a new engine supplier for the following season. Team boss Ron Dennis flirted unsuccessfully with Renault before settling on Ford and the Cosworth HB.

Ayrton Senna in McLaren Garage

However, the Detroit manufacturer already had a close relationship with the works-supported Benetton team, and McLaren was thus only able to negotiate an arrangement as a paying customer. Initially at least it could use only the lower-spec standard wire-valve HB V8, while Benetton had the more advanced Series VIII, with pneumatic valves. The Cosworth deal was not officially signed until December 17, although the McLaren design team – led by Neil Oatley and head of aerodynamics Henri Durand – had no choice but to get started on the basis that the HB would be the eventual choice. On the plus side, the HB was compact compared to the Honda V12. Its size, and smaller fuel requirement, meant that McLaren was able to create a beautifully packaged machine.

“It was one of those challenges where we had to rescue a situation after the withdrawal of Honda,” Martin Whitmarsh recalled. “So it was bit of scramble. The HB was a neat little package in comparison to the Honda it replaced, but quite a lot less powerful. The car was quite neat and small and clean.”

This was the height of the driver aids era, and McLaren subsidiary TAG Electronics, under Dr Udo Zucker, was at the cutting edge. In addition to getting the very best out of the customer HB, TAG had helped McLaren to develop a superb active ride system, and other tools that helped to put the chassis on a par with the then-dominant Williams. However, the bottom line was that in pure bhp terms, the HB was no match for the Renault V10 in the back of the Williams used by Alain Prost and rookie Damon Hill.

This fact was all too clear to Senna, who went into the winter without having extended his contract with the team. Initially he wasn’t too excited about McLaren’s post-Honda engine plans, and ultimately he went to the first Grand Prix in South Africa with just a one-race deal, hedging his longer term commitment. Despite the uncertainty, Dennis remained upbeat at the start of the season.

“Contractual issues have become of secondary importance,” he said at the first race. “And I am quite optimistic that, as the year unfolds, we will see some very interesting tactics and strategies employed to hopefully win the World Championship.”

In the other seat was IndyCar star and F1 newcomer Michael Andretti, son of racing legend Mario. The American obviously had a lot to learn, and his winter testing was compromised by a lengthy gap between the departure of Honda, and the availability of the first HB car for testing on February 15. Meanwhile, Dennis hedged his bets by signing the promising Mika Hakkinen as test driver, the Finn having already raced for Lotus for two full seasons. Senna was to find the MP4-8 to be better than expected, and he soon realised that when the circumstances were right, he would at least have a shot at race wins, if not the title.

The season started with the South African GP at Kyalami, where Prost beat Senna to pole. The brilliant Brazilian made the better start and led for 23 laps until his old rival got by. Ayrton then battled with the Benetton of Michael Schumacher – the man already seen as the next big superstar after scoring his first win the previous year. Their fight ended when the German spun off, leaving Ayrton to come home a distant second as the race ended on a wet track.

Prost then dominated the early stages of the Brazilian GP until the heavens opened and he spun. His team-mate Hill led for a while, having lost his advantage to a Safety Car. On a drying track, Senna got ahead as everyone pitted for slicks, and he led the last 30 laps. It was a hugely popular home victory, and the first of the post-Honda era for McLaren. And a delighted Senna received the trophy from one of his heroes, Juan Manuel Fangio. However, Ayrton knew that fortune had smiled on him that day, and that on a level playing field, it would be almost impossible to beat Williams. He also declined to commit to a season-long deal, instead negotiating with Dennis on a race-by-race basis.

The third event of the year was the European GP at Donington Park, the first and, as it turned out, only World Championship event held at a venue that had famously hosted Grands Prix in the years immediately prior to World War II, before hostilities led to its closure and subsequent fall into disrepair. When a rebuilt Donington re-opened in 1977, F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone promised circuit boss and famed car collector Tom Wheatcroft that Donington would one day host a Grand Prix. It wasn’t until 1993 that the opportunity emerged when some shuffling of the schedule left a spot free, and Ecclestone gave Wheatcroft a call. The downside was that the only feasible date was in early April, when there was an obvious risk of inclement weather. While some of his colleagues didn’t know Donington, for Senna it was a familiar place.

“I have memories from Donington because I raced here in other classes,” he said. “In Formula Ford, FF2000s, F3s. I won here some races, and I also happened to have driven for the very first time in my career an F1 car here at Donington, just a couple of days after the British GP back in 1983. It was a Williams then!

“So I have good memories. I’ve been here testing on a few occasions in F1, with Lotus-Renault, Lotus-Honda with active suspension, but it’s been I think five or six years since I was here last.”

Prost and Hill dominated dry qualifying for Williams, while the second row was shared by Benetton’s Schumacher and Senna, the pair enjoying a little battle for Cosworth supremacy.

As many had anticipated, race day turned out to be overcast and wet. That didn’t dampen the enthusiasm of either a delighted Wheatcroft or the large crowd. Also in attendance was the Princess of Wales, who paid a visit to the McLaren garage with sons William and Harry. Eyeing the grey skies, Senna knew that an opportunity had presented itself for him.

“I’ve always had tremendously good results in wet conditions or adverse conditions,” he told the BBC before the race. “Now, that doesn’t mean that I like it, because as you know, as a driver, situations like those can really catch you. It’s very uncertain, this situation. I don’t like that feeling.

“But looking at it a different way, if conditions are stable or predictable, Williams is well ahead. And no hope, basically, that’s what I feel. So in order to have some hope you’ve got to have some question marks in it, whereby you get situations where you make decisions, and if you do it right, you get a big plus, and if you do it wrong, too bad.

“But in those conditions, then you have a chance. And if you’re looking not only for a podium but also victory, you need uncertainty, and hope you make better decisions than the competition.”

The opening lap of the race has gone down in history. Senna did not get away well, and was initially squeezed out by Schumacher, and both men then lost out to Karl Wendlinger’s Sauber as the pack slithered round the first corner. That seemed to galvanise the Brazilian into action. He was soon back ahead of Michael, and then caught and passed Wendlinger in a bold, decisive move around the outside of the Craner Curves left-hander. He then closed in on Hill, passing him neatly under braking at Coppice corner.

He was now up to second, and then at the penultimate corner he dived inside Prost to relieve the surprised Frenchman of the lead. Fifth to first in the course of a lap was a stunning performance, and one that would go down in the history books. For McLaren the joy was tempered in part by a collision that eliminated the sister car of Andretti. Once in front, there was no stopping Ayrton’s progress, and as the track dried, it became clear that the timing of tyre changes would be critical. Senna came in for slicks on lap 18, briefly losing the lead to Prost before he too pitted. Then it rained again, and just 10 laps later Senna was back for wets, this time retaining the lead.

Six laps after that it was deemed dry enough for slicks again. A sticking rear wheel nut badly delayed Senna’s stop, putting Prost in front briefly until he also pitted. The good news was that the main opposition was having an even harder time. Prost was seemingly getting the timing of every stop wrong, while Schumacher spun off. It seemed that nothing could stop Senna’s progress. Of course, much was down to his unique talents – but on that day, the MP4-8 was the ideal tool for the job.

“That was a race which really saw the best from that particular car,” Dennis would recall. “Which was fully electronic, had active ride, had the ability to memorise virtually every parameter, like the gear changes.

“It provided the driver with the opportunity to concentrate on driving. We contributed a lot to that race, because the car did a lot of thinking for the driver. All the driver had to do was drive it, and of course that’s something that Ayrton did very well!”

Senna had lapped the field when he came in for wets on lap 57 only to find that the team was not expecting him, so he drove straight through. By a quirk of design the Donington pits were effectively a short cut relative to the track itself, and he didn’t lose any time – indeed he set the fastest lap! After that glitch, he decided to stay out on slicks for a while longer.

“I don’t know how many times we stopped for tyres,” he said after the race. “I think it’s surely the record in any race. Driving with slicks in the damp and very slippery conditions was a tremendous effort, because you just don’t get the feeling from the car. You have to commit yourself to certain corners and you can be off the circuit. In conditions like this it’s gambling and taking chances that pay off, and we gambled well.”

On lap 66 Ayrton made a final stop for wets, and 10 laps later he brought the car safely home, some 84 seconds – almost a complete lap – ahead of Hill. He then stopped on the slowing down lap to pick up a Brazilian flag. Prost would eventually finish a lapped third. The Frenchman had pitted seven times, usually going onto the wrong tyre at the wrong moment, and endured a thoroughly dispiriting afternoon. The 50,000 fans who’d braved the weather had enjoyed one of the most amazing F1 races ever seen in the United Kingdom, and witnessed a majestic performance from one of the all-time greats.

“It was one of his best drives,” said Dennis. “But it was also one of the best races for the team, because that was a race in which you had to get it absolutely perfect, in regard to which tyres you were on. We were swapping backwards and forwards, wet to dry and dry to wet. That was a perfectly executed race by both the team and Ayrton.”

Senna, who clearly enjoyed sitting next to a humbled and frustrated Prost in the press conference, made it clear what the race had meant to him. And when Prost complained about his difficult race and the strategy gaffes Senna was quick to tease him, suggesting that perhaps they should change cars…

“I feel very light about it all,” said Ayrton. “The race told me everything about myself; it was what I wanted to prove to myself. A natural tendency for a driver, as long as he is able to do his job with a team, is to learn continuously.

“Experience only adds to your driving. Providing you can keep your motivation at a single level. I think that’s been the case almost every year of my career from 1984, always just a little bit better – not necessarily faster, but more consistent, less susceptible to mistakes, think always, always, always. That experience allows you to be a step ahead all the time, ready to make the next move.”

Against the odds after three races he led the World Championship, 12 points clear of Prost and 22 ahead of Schumacher. Not surprisingly Senna took the opportunity to call for extra support from Ford in the form of upgraded engines and parity with Benetton, despite contracts specifying that could not happen. And yet bizarrely he still didn’t have a contract for the full season as his race-by-race negotiations continued.

“I will make no comment about that,” he said after the Donington race. “All I can tell you that I don’t regret at all what I have done so far under the circumstances. Not the results, but the terms that we have come through – and if I don’t race in the future, I will not regret.”

Senna would go on to win three more races in 1993. However team-mate Andretti had a terrible year. He struggled to adapt to F1, to life in Europe in general, and the complexities of the MP4-8 in particular. He was replaced at the end of the year by Hakkinen, who provided Senna with a wake-up call by out-qualifying him in Portugal, and kickstarted his spectacular career as a McLaren race driver, The MP4/8 thus has a special place in the team’s history.

“It was the car in which Ayrton won his last five races,” said Whitmarsh. “It was the car in which Mika made his debut for us, it was the car which won our 100th GP in Brazil, it was the car in which Ayrton won Donington.”